The Star Spangled Banner is not representative of the totality of the American nation and should not be its national anthem.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great patriotic song, and it poeticizes a great feat in American military history. It would make for a great military anthem. National anthems, however, should reflect the nation’s identity — its natural beauty, culture, history, traditions, and hopes — not just its military exploits.
Take these lines from the Canadian national anthem, for instance:
O Canada! Where pines and maples grow,
Great prairies spread and lordly rivers flow,
How dear to us thy broad domain,
From East to Western sea!
Thou land of hope for all who toil!
Thou True North, strong and free!
Or the New Zealander national anthem.
God of Nations at Thy feet,
In the bonds of love we meet,
Hear our voices, we entreat,
God defend our free land.
Guard Pacific’s triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her praises heard afar,
God defend New Zealand.
Or this from the Australian national anthem:
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil,
Our home is girt by sea;
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts
Of beauty rich and rare;
In history’s page, let every stage
Advance Australia fair.
Each of these — like many other anthems — touches on the geographic features of the nation. Mountains. Soil. Oceans. Geolocation. They often mention attributes or values of the people.
National anthems often mention past military sacrifice but stay grounded in the present — or at least the ideal of a harmonious present in an idyllic landscape. In other words, the battle and ensuing sacrifice for victory is not the end in itself. That would suggest a nation at perpetual war. Is that really the image people want to project of their country?
Besides the singular focus on wartime and the visual image of battle, The Star Spangled Banner is difficult to sing. The raucous applause artists receive after performing it at ballgames owes as much to their hitting the high notes as a display of patriotism.
Background on the Star Spangled Banner
Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer, wrote The Star Spangled Banner as a poem as he was held captive on a British warship in the Patapsco River on September 14, 1814.
The British had invaded the United States and recently burned the US Capitol and White House. Key and Col. John Stuart Skinner boarded the British flagship Tonnant in the Chesapeake Bay to secure the release of an American doctor. They succeeded. However, because they overheard the Brits’ plans to attack Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, they were held prisoner until after the battle.
Beginning on the morning of September 13, for over 24 hours, the British bombarded the fort. As he looked over the harbor that night, Key saw the British cannons lighting up the sky — unsure if the it was holding out.
In the morning, he saw that the fort’s small, tattered storm flag had been lowered and the US garrison flag raised in its place — showing that the British had failed to take the it.
He began his poem that morning on the water and finished it at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore. His brother-in-law, ironically, put the poem to the tune of The Anacreontic Song — an English drinking song by English composer John Stafford Smith. Newspapers popularized it, and Thomass Carr of the Carr Music Store in Baltimore published it as The Star Spangled Banner.
Although the song remained popular throughout the 19th century, it competed with many other patriotic tunes and was largely played by the armed forces.
Shortly before the US entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the military to play it on special occasions.
During the seventh-inning intermission of the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, a Navy band played the song — stirring the fans in a solemn display of patriotism and a reminder of the ongoing war.
“Certainly the outpouring of sentiment, enthusiasm, and patriotism at the 1918 World Series went a long way to making the (song) the national anthem,” wrote John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball.
Despite the patriotism that the song elicited during wartime, there was little initial push to make it the official American national anthem. Maryland Congressman John Charles Linthicum tried and failed six times to make it the national anthem.
Finally, in 1930, the Veterans of Foreign Wars sent a petition to Congress, signed by more than five million people, asking it be made the national anthem. Congress relented, and President Herbert Hoover signed it into law on March 3, 1931.
What was the national anthem before 1931?
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not published a popular article right before Congress made Key’s song official, noting that the US had no official national anthem. That may have influenced the general public to petition Congress to get one already.
Before 1931, patriotic songs tended the serve the purpose in which they were played. For instance, The Star Spangled Banner was appropriate at a military parade or during wartime, but it was just that — a military song.
Yankee Doodle was popular in the aftermath of the American Revolution and remains a folk classic today. But it never rose to the rank of being considered a national anthem. Other popular patriotic songs in the 19th and early 20th centuries included:
- Fourth of July Ode, by James Russell Lowell, 1841
- When Johnny Comes Marching Home, by Patrick Gilmore, 1863
- Stars and Stripes Forever, by John Phillip Sousa, 1896
- Grand Old Flag, by George Cohan, 1906
- National Emblem, by Edwin Bagley, 1902
The best candidates for America’s unofficial national anthem before 1931 were America — also known as My Country Tis of Thee — and Hail Columbia — initially published as The President’s March.
Samuel Francis Smith wrote the lyrics to America in 1831 and put it to the tune of the British national anthem God Save the King.
Phillip Phile composed the music for The President’s March for George Washington’s inauguration in 1789. Joseph Hopkinson added lyrics in 1798, which turned it into Hail Columbia.
Both songs touch on liberty, independence, and sacrifice. Hail Columbia is unique in that it was both written and composed in the US by Americans.
This song should replace The Star Spangled Banner.
Hail Columbia, America, and later patriotic songs like Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land and Irving Berlin’s God Bless America would make excellent replacements for The Star Spangled Banner.
No song, however, encompasses the beauty and values of America and the passion it inspires in its citizens quite like America the Beautiful.
Unlike nearly every other patriotic song in American history, it was not written to celebrate a military victory or as propaganda for war.
Kathryn Lee Bates wrote it during peacetime and one of the most prosperous periods in American history.
Bates was an English professor, who wrote it as a poem while traveling by train from Massachusetts to Colorado.
Inspired by the natural beauty and diverse landscapes she saw, she wrote it almost as a love letter to her native country. She started it atop Pike’s Peak in Colorado, and like Key finished it in a hotel room.
From the first verse: She would have encountered “amber waves of grain” in The Great Plains, purple mountains in the Rockies, and the enameled plain on the Prairie.
From the second, she pays homage to the pilgrims and settlers who made it possible for her to travel from Massachusetts to Colorado.
Verse three commends past sacrifice and warns against excess greed (This was at the height of the Gilded Age.).
She didn’t see only wilderness and farmland. In verse four, she gives a shout-out to America’s emerald cities — definitely a reference to Chicago, which was known as the White City because of the white facades of Chicago’s World’s Fair.
Bates’s poem found a home with a melody that church organist and choir director Samuel Ward from Newark composed for a hymn. Like Hail Columbia, it did not borrow its author or composer from Europe.
Fans of America the Beautiful lobbied for it to be made the official national anthem in the late 1920s. But they couldn’t compete with the VFW.
The Star Spangled Banner has been America’s official national anthem for less than a century. The US has been around for nearly two and a half centuries. It would do no damage to the nation if Congress changed it, considering we had no anthem for the first 155 years, and the country barely batted an eye when Hoover signed the designation into law.
Congress should retire The Star Spangled Banner as the national anthem by 2031. A hundred years is quite long enough to treat an obscure poem by an obscure lawyer about an obscure battle, in an obscure war, as some kind of transformative moment in American history.
That would give those wedded to the current national anthem time to wean themselves off it and get used to seeing America the Beautiful as the nation’s new anthem.
Congress wouldn’t need to discard Key’s song, though. It could make The Star Spangled Banner the official anthem of the US military, much how The Marine’s Anthem is the official song of the US Marines.
America the Beautiful makes for a better national anthem because it shows the America that most Americans identify with. It presents a nation that fills citizens with pride and foreigners with admiration.
Key’s song, commemorating the Battle of Fort McHenry, became popularized as America became a naval empire. During World War I, the government needed to drum up support for military intervention. After that military intervention, the veteran lobby found a way to conquer patriotism with militarism.
The Star Spangled Banner is an excellent song about a great moment that moved a patriotic lawyer while serving his country as a civilian. But national anthems should define the uniqueness of a nation as a reminder to its citizens and a representation to foreigners. America the Beautiful captures that nicely while mentioning the nation’s beauty, exploration, and progress.
Originally published on Medium